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History maker

Tuesday, 13th June, 2017

Jenny Camilleri, OAM, at the Crystal Street train station where the Family History Group has it offices. Incidentally, said Jenny, the station turned 60 years old on June 4. PICTURE: Craig Brealey Jenny Camilleri, OAM, at the Crystal Street train station where the Family History Group has it offices. Incidentally, said Jenny, the station turned 60 years old on June 4. PICTURE: Craig Brealey

By Craig Brealey

If you are doing the family history, having a convict in the background will get you off to a flying start, says Jenny Camilleri.

Jenny became fascinated with local history when she was researching the life of her father, Jimmy Jenkins, 33 years ago and has gone on to write four books about Broken Hill’s past.

Her stories and her work for the Broken Hill Historical Society and the BH Family History Group are well appreciated in the city but we were not the only ones to recognise her talent.

Yesterday Jenny Camilleri was awarded the Order of Australia Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

“Some kind person put me up for it,” she said. But the wonderful surprise was tinged with sadness because her husband George did not live to see it.

“George died last year. I cried for days after I got the letter (announcing the award). He would have been very proud.” 

Jenny said George had supported her in her ambitions to write ever since she started researching her father’s family in 1984.

“I became very interested in history after the death of my dad. He was a miner and went to World War Two. I started looking into his family history and was able to trace it back as far as the 16 Century in Gloucestershire in England.

“Then I researched the family history of my mother, Jean Sanderson, and found that her great-great grandfather was a convict sent out from England.

“It’s always good to have a convict in your family because you can get more documents about their life. There are records of each convict - where they came from, what they did - and a description of them such as their colouring, eyes, height, weight. 

“I got an artist to do a sketch of him based on the description and you could see the family resemblance.”

Jenny said it was a short step from writing about family to setting down what she could discover about the city’s remarkable past.

“I wanted to see if I could do it. I really enjoy writing. Local history has been a real passion of mine.”

Jenny’s first effort was “A Peep into the Past”, which she described as “a little book about some of the very early days of Broken Hill. Broken Hill has such a great background.”

Her next was “Some Outstanding Women”, then followed a history of the Syndicate of Seven called “In the Broken Paddock” and her latest is “Remarkable People, Events and Buildings”.

Jenny’s contribution to local history goes beyond writing. She is the secretary of the Broken Hill Family History Group and the BH Historical Society for which she writes the annual journal and keeps records.

“Every day I transcribe the headlines in the Barrier Daily Truth and put these into a column, with the date, for people to look at in the future. The date is very important. We get a lot of visitors who want to know about their family’s past, what they did and where they lived in Broken Hill.”

Jenny also devotes four days a week to the Family History Group at its offices in the Crystal Street train station.

The group’s historical resources have grown so much up since it was founded in 1977 that Jenny says she does not need to use the city’s official archives. 

For example, apart from the group’s own documented research, they have an extraordinary collection of 12,500 photographs from the mining companies.

These show the faces of new employees and come with a card stating their particulars.

“People come in here to look up the history of their father or grandfather and sometimes when they see the photographs of these young men they cry,” Jenny said.

Her latest project is a list of houses which have, or had, plaques mounted on the front wall, usually next to the door. Some of them were the town homes of station owners and so the plaque bore the name of the station, but there was another, more practical, purpose.

“The plaques were for the postie because in the early days not many houses had street numbers. There was one place near the old Centennial Hotel that was called ‘Martha Villa’.

Jenny is also compiling a list of German surnames of which there were many in the city’s early days.

“In a newspaper in 1893 there was a story about a meeting of 200 Germans which was reported as the largest meeting of Germans in Broken Hill.”

The first German Club was in Blende Street near the Centennial Hotel. It then moved to the Theatre Royal, and down the road to the Pirie Building before setting up in Chloride Street in the building we now know as the YMCA.

Their last home was in Delamore Street and that was burned down on January 1, 1915 just hours after the murderous attack on the Silverton Picnic Train by the so-called “Turks”. Turkey was Germany’s ally in WW1.

Among the greatest satisfactions in life is to find a job that you enjoy. Jenny’s job does not pay but that does not matter, she said.

“My motto is: ‘Do what you love and love what you do.’”

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